Are millennials really all that different from the rest of us (at least when it comes to church)?

In part 2 of her blog posts at CNN, Rachel Held Evans tells us (and millennials) why they still need the church. Guess what! It’s all about community and the sacraments! She links to some other responses to her earlier piece here.

Yesterday, Richard Beck asked, “What does Rachel Held Evans want?” His answer:

So what does she want? Let me try to put it this way, and I’m just guessing with this. I think what Rachel wants is what a lot of us want. We want a mainline theological and social sensibility combined with an evangelical church expression.

In short, a progressive vision of the evangelical church.

That got me thinking back to my own experience as a baby boomer (and a Mennonite, which did not quite fit the Evangelical camp back in those days). My disaffection with the church began when I was a teenager. In college, there was a term I took a shift in the dining hall on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t submit to the temptation of going to church (where I would inevitably be disappointed by everything except the hymns).

In Divinity School, my friends and I joked that the Mennonite congregation in town was more like Mennonites Anonymous than the Body of Christ (but we still sang with gusto and emotion). Reading Beck reminded me of why I left the Mennonite Church, and why it took so long for me to make the final break. I was formed by that community, its worship, theology, and ethics, but there came a point where I could no longer find a home in it. I had changed theologically, having discovered the great treasure of Christian theology and spirituality from across the whole of the Christian tradition.

I recently was asked by an old Mennonite friend as we were talking about the decline of Christianity in the US and the struggles in the Episcopal Church, if I regretted having become Episcopalian and become a priest. I’m not sure what precisely I said in response, perhaps that I had no choice in the matter. I should have said that I find God’s grace in the sacraments, that the Book of Common Prayer has shaped my experience of Jesus Christ, and that in the local parish, and in the institutional church, I can still discern God’s grace at work.

Still, I hold my commitment to the institution of the Episcopal Church very lightly. I’m not interested in its long-term survival (except for the Church Pension Fund, of course). What I am committed to is the vision of Christianity expressed by Anglicanism. I believe that vision will survive and can thrive in other institutional forms than those that currently exist. I also believe that we can provide a place where people encounter the love of Jesus Christ and the grace of God in life-changing ways. That’s why I’m a priest.

We have certainly seen a transformation in the way individuals relate to institutions in the last fifty years. It began with baby boomers but has accelerated in subsequent generations. Still, most humans will always seek community of some sort as well as a deeper purpose or meaning in life. What’s changed is that churches are no longer assumed to be the primary places where individuals might seek or find those things. There are other places to go, other ways of connecting with people. As an essay I pointed to earlier this week argues, with more and more people raised as non-religious by religiously unaffiliated parents, many might not imagine that the church, any church, is relevant to their lives and their journeys.

It’s likely that young adults today in and the immediate future will be as lightly committed to local congregations or religious communities as I am to the institutional church beyond my parish. I’m already seeing that to some degree at Grace with many young adults attending regularly or semi-regularly but developing no relationships with others in the congregation. That’s not always the case, not even the majority. And I don’t mean this by way of criticism. Young adults may connect with the sacred and with God at Grace. Some of them may be searching for community elsewhere; perhaps they’ll be surprised by God’s grace and find it among us.

Sometimes the rest of us do too; and sometimes we’re as surprised to find God’s grace here as we are to find connection with other humans.

The rose-colored glasses of progressive Christians

Earlier this week, my twitter and facebook feeds were awash with likes, shares, and retweets of an article in which the author urged mainline churches (especially, presumably, Episcopalians) not to abandon traditional forms of worship to accommodate young adults. She urged us to change wisely.

Towards the end of the week, there was a similar response to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that claims there are more religious progressives (23%) among the millennial generation than religious conservatives (17%, with 22% unaffiliated). Of those aged 67-88, only 12% are progressive while 47% are conservative.

In the midst of a dominant narrative of long-term decline among mainline Christianity, such stories reassure us that we’re on the right track. We don’t have to do anything about our liturgy or worship to adapt to the tastes of a changing culture. In fact, the culture is changing in our direction–if the trend continues, in a few decades there will be more progressive Christians than conservative Christians!

But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Among those classified in the survey as “religious progressives” are people “who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition but claim religion is at least somewhat important in their lives” (18% of the overall total) as well as non-Christians (13%). Both of the latter are no doubt going to continue to grow in the coming decades as the number of affiliated Christians continues to drop. If the designers of the survey had divided things up a little differently and defined the religiously unaffiliated as non-religious, the percentages would have been quite different.

And the same is true of the lovely piece proclaiming the appeal of traditional liturgy to young adults. For every article that makes such claims, there are probably a thousand or ten thousand stories of young people who find our liturgy and institutional life stultifying and meaningless. And Dilley herself pointed to what is a distinct possibility:

Even so, your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.

Grasping at straws isn’t the answer. Facing the future and creatively responding to its possibilities and challenges, is.

Anglicanism for Millennials–Update

A couple of days ago, I posted a query on this blog and to facebook asking about resources designed specifically to introduce Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church to young adults.

I expressed my own frustration with reaching for books that were written twenty or thirty years ago. While volumes like Holmes What is Anglicanism and Sykes and Booty, A Study of Anglicanism are valuable, and I’ve offered them to inquirers, I was hoping to hear about books written in the last few years that reflected the current transformation in culture and religion. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations I received were for classics–C. S. Lewis, Evelyn Underhill, et al, that are wonderful books, accessible, transformational, but I wonder whether they speak to a post-Christian, or “spiritual but not religious” seeker.

The best recommendation came from Susan Brown Snook, who offered Chris Yaw’s Jesus was an Episcopalian (And You Can Be One Too)I’ve ordered multiple copies to give out.

A couple of other recommendations also seem promising, including Full Homely Divinity, which although focused on England and although focused on rural parishes has a great deal of useful info for newcomers and seekers. The blog roll of also includes a lot of useful perspectives on Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church.

And then there’s Fr. Matthew presents which I should have thought of immediately.

Any others?

Quitting Church, coming back, and staying

Andrea Palpan Dilley on her journey away from and back to church. Her suggestions of 6 things to do to help young adults explore their faith and doubts

E.J. Dionne’s response to the Freedom from Religion ad.

My, my. Putting aside the group’s love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shocking to learn that I’m an “enabler” doing “bad” to women’s rights. But Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.

I’m sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. It may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.

And his response to the comments his article generated.

James Martin, SJ on those who, like Dionne, stay in church:

The church is the place into which we were born and out of which we will leave this life. We are called through baptism into a distinctive place in the church. That means that we are called not only to enjoy its fruits, but to labor in its vineyards, even when that vineyard is filled with thorns, the day is late, we are exhausted, the fruit seems scarce, and the sun is beating down on us, seemingly without mercy. It is in our church that we will work out, difficult as it may be, impossible as it may seem at times, our salvation, alongside other sinners—sinners just like us.

“To whom shall we go?” said Peter. The church is not Jesus, but it is his visible body on the earth.  And, like his body after the Resurrection, it has wounds.  So you could also ask: “Where else shall we go?”

And remember that it’s your church, too. God called you into it, by name, on the day of your baptism.  Never forget that Jesus called each of the disciples for a particular reason.  They each had different gifts and talents, and were able to help build the Kingdom of God in different ways.  As Mother Teresa said, “You can do something I cannot do. I can do something you cannot do.  Together let us do something beautiful for God.”  Though the disciples often quarrelled with one another, Jesus wanted them all to be there.  When you’re tempted to leave, or when others say that they don’t want you around, remember who called you.

Ministering among those “crushed” by the Church

More on “Leaving Church:” the “nones,” young adults and the future of Christianity

Skye Jethani weighs in, building on Berger’s essay.

So, we are left with a narrow path. Veer too far to the cultural right and the young will dismiss the church as a puppet of Republican politics. Veer too far to the theological left and the power of the Gospel is lost amid cultural accommodation.

The younger generations, and our culture as a whole, needs evidence of a third way to be Christian. It will require more than individual voices, but an organized and identifiable community of believers that reject Christianism and stands for Christ’s Good News, manifested in good lives, and evident in good works.

So does Jonathan Fitzgerald:

Now, after spending much of my adulthood trying to find a place to belong, I’ve turned into the opposite of a None — I’ve become a proud Joiner. Since college, my own search has found me desperate to join. I have considered Roman Catholic confirmation, Presbyterian church membership and, most recently, Episcopalian identification. To that end, I have been attending confirmation classes at my local Episcopal parish since last month.

As I look around at my fellow Joiners, I see that it is specifically those who have lived the life of the unaffiliated who have decided, Sunday after Sunday, for several hours following Mass, to gather and discuss the rhythm of the liturgical calendar, the purpose of baptism, the history of the church and the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. I’m not sure whether I’ll be confirmed when the class ends in eight weeks, but there is certainly something attractive about the prospect.

It would be foolish to think God requires affiliation as a means of access. We humans however tend to corral into formal groupings, whether it’s organized religion or political parties. In the absence of tried-and-true tradition, we begin to create our own. My guess is that, as the numbers of Nones continue to increase, they will begin to develop traditions, create rules and define their orthodoxy until, ultimately, something like a new denomination will arise. Perhaps in 2022 someone will declare “The Rise of the Joiners” as one of the life-changing ideas of the moment.

He wasn’t really ever a none. He was a Christian, grew up a Christian, but outside of Christian community.

Yesterday was one of those days of grace at Grace, surrounded by the ministry and faith of young (and older) adults. A fine sermon by Lauren Cochran (young adult herself); a presentation on our companion diocese relationship with the Diocese of Newala, in Tanzania.

The first session of a spontaneous confirmation class which bears out some of the discussion I’ve been linking to here. Four of the five who attended are young adults who have come from more conservative religious backgrounds; the fifth an older adult who was baptized and confirmed Roman Catholic. During our conversation, I pointed out that these demographics were pretty typical for Episcopal gatherings in that a majority (in our case all, including the two clergy in attendance) were not “cradle” Episcopalian.

Later in the day, I celebrated the Eucharist and shared dinner with the Episcopal Campus Ministry. We had planned on getting home by 7, but lively conversation and fellowship kept us lingering until almost 8. As we chatted, I noted to myself the rather different dynamics: of the six or eight who stayed till the end to help with cleanup, it was half and half–half had grown up Episcopalian, the other half not. The importance of that community to those who were there was palpable. Gathered together around the altar, gathered together to share a meal and working together to clean up; all the while talking to one another, asking questions about matters Episcopalian and theological, and checking in on how each other was doing.

That’s the work of Christian community, important work, and evangelistic work, as among those in attendance were people who had been coming every week, and some who had come for the first time; experiencing hospitality, welcome, and the love of Christ. When we do that, and do it well, we don’t have to worry about the future–and our work this semester is building a solid foundation for the chaplain we will call to that ministry.

Millennials and GM: What can we learn?

There’s an article in the NYT about GM’s outreach to young adults. They’ve got a problem almost as big as Christianity:

In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.

That’s a 25% decline in a decade, even worse than the decline in the Episcopal Church. The article presents some of the problems with adapting to contemporary culture: the proposed colors (techno-pink, lemonade, denim) will take at least a year before they’re in production, and cars themselves take three years from design to production. So the problems with dashboards will be around for awhile:

“They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

Kevin Drum comments: “I dunno. I’m 53 years old, and even I’m not feeling the hipness. More like the stink of fear.”

There have been earlier comparisons between corporations like GM and Kodak and the church, but perhaps this comparison is even more instructive. To put it in marketing terms, the “nones” just don’t want our product, and changing liturgical colors (or style, or music) won’t make any difference.

On the other hand, the Episcopal Church never had GM’s market share. We’re something of a niche product, and perhaps, by doing better at communicating what we are about might bring positive results.


Young adults, older adults, and leaving church

Roman Catholics are asking the question, too.

We may acknowledge some of their criticisms, but we are quicker to point out that they don’t understand. “Kids these days!” we exclaim in so many ways, throwing up our hands—while millennials walk out the door. “Will we continue to preach to the (aging) choir?” Fullam asked.

Answering that question may mean the difference between a vibrant religious community 20 or 30 years from now and a truly post-religious society like that of Western Europe. Every sociological measure is showing that the youngest members of the church aren’t staying, and it would be foolish to hope that they will return when they get married or have kids.

We can either keep repeating the same lines or we can zip it for a while and listen to what they are really saying. Maybe if we are quiet long enough, they might ask us why we stay. If they do, we better have a good answer.

Rachel Held Evans gives fifteen reasons why she left the church, and fifteen why she returned. Both posts should be read by everyone interested in young adults and the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s a story behind each of those thirty reasons, stories that play themselves out in the lives of young people every day.

The great American sociologist of religion Peter Berger reflects on the article by Putnam and Campbell to which I’ve previously alluded. He points out that many of the “nones” may be believers without belonging (certainly Held Evans, to the extent that she left church, belonged to that group). About the “nones,” he posits two groups, one consisting of those who have been convinced by the “new atheists;” the other made up of descendants of the counter culture of the 60s. I doubt there are very many in this latter group. Berger is intrigued by the socio-economic status of the nones cited in the Pew survey. They are not, mostly, members of the elite, but of the lower class, often lacking high school education. This suggests something else, that they are profoundly alienated from institutional religion, and probably profoundly alienated from other institutions of American life. I wonder whether we are not reverting to the state of affairs that existed in the nineteenth century.

To see the alienation from institutional religion in action, from someone who is perhaps moving away, unlike Rachel Held Evans who has made her way back, apparently; read the piece by Michael O’Loughlin: a flickering light:

I’m no longer surprised when a close female friend, successful and well educated, looks askew at a male-dominated church and cringes before she walks away. When those charged with teaching the faith tell their flock to believe or act a certain way because their authority gives them the right to do so, it becomes easier to see why many chuckle as they interpret this as a parent scolding a toddler: do this because I said so. Gay men and women rightly refuse to succumb to bullying in their professional and familial lives, so it’s not a surprise when they leave a church that calls them disordered. And though we are over a decade removed from the revelation of clergy sex abuse of minors, many in my generation will never again give the benefit of the doubt to the Catholic hierarchy on matters of faith, morals, or much else.

The question is, given the profound distrust of institutions among millennials, a distrust much deeper than anything we’ve seen before, how can those of us who are clergy, representatives of the institution, speak authentic good news?

College and faith

I know the controversy is so last week. But I finally got around to reading Garry Wills‘ eminently reasonable response to Santorum’s complaint that colleges destroy religious faith:

Minds grow by questioning things, and adolescence is a great period of questions. Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken learned to cross-examine the Bible all on their own, without any help at all from college. An unquestioned faith is not faith but rote recitation. The opposite of such questioning is not deep belief but arrested development.

A report on research by Richard Putnam (Bowling Alone) and David Campbell on young adults, Christianity, and the culture wars: . A free summary of the Putnam and Campbell Foreign Affairs article is here. To quote Putnam, young Americans are saying, “If religion is just about conservative politics, I’m outtahere.”

But it’s not just conservative Christianity that turns college students and young adults away. There are significant cultural factors as well. Christian Piatt cites seven, not one of them connected with conservative politics or the culture wars.  Instead, he mentions:

  • that there’s no natural bridge to church when teens leave home
  • distraction
  • the need to filter out the vast quantities of information (and advertising) that assault young people.

In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Especially in light of Christian Smith’s ongoing research, which I’ve mentioned before. Another take on that is here:

More on young adults and the church

Brandon J. O’Brien explores the religious views of 20-somethings in three posts at Out of Ur. Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

O’Brien was teaching a World Religions course in a community college and gave his students writing assignments that explored their religious commitments, beliefs, and practices. He was sobered by what he read. Among his conclusions:

Very few of my students could identify any way religion might impact their daily lives, specifically their future personal and professional goals. Even the students who consider themselves committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers. They could point to superficial things—like wanting to be married in their church, which meant they had to marry a fellow Christian—but couldn’t go much deeper than that.

Skye Jethani read this posts and reflected, producing: Back to (a Theology of) Work We Go….

Interesting reflections on outreach to young adults, beginning with this premise:

Our religious lives, our communion with God and formation as his people, primarily plays out in two spheres of our lives–family and work. Our closest relationships (marriage, children, parents) are where we experience the joys and pains of life most acutely. They are where we practice, or fail to practice, love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, etc. So it would make sense that we utilize family relationships as a key context for discipleship–learning and applying the teachings of Christ.

The church has focused its efforts on the family, leaving vocation and work to the side. What does this mean for young adults who are delaying marriage? That we have nothing to say to what is the primary sphere in which they live and search for meaning:

We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group offers six reasons why young people leave the church. An interview with him on NPR.

I’ve got no clue on how to solve the problem, how to reach out to young adults, but it seems to me, that authenticity is key. We’ve got to be able to speak to them in a language they understand and relate to, and offer them relationships that are life-giving and transforming. What strikes me at Grace is that we don’t have trouble attracting young adults to our services. We have some difficulty getting them connected, but very often they do, even when we don’t make it particularly easy. Above all, we have to be open and welcoming, and allow them to set the terms for our relationship, not impose expectations on them.


Thinking about “the “nones”

I didn’t get around to thinking about Eric Weiner’s op-ed in the New York Times several weeks ago. In it, he discusses the increased numbers of Americans who identify themselves as “non-religious.” Weiner sees the problem as a result of organized religion. God is not fun, he says and goes on to observe that increased polarization in religion as in politics, leaves growing numbers of people marginalized. He cites his own experience:

In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.

I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition.

We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.

I have no doubt that his experience is shared by many. His proposed solution, though, seems misguided, at best:

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

It’s particularly ironic, given the response to Jobs’ death. It would seem he is already perceived as a spiritual guru, or even a saint.

I wonder whether Weiner actually experienced religious communities that do not deal with “raw superstition.”

Here’s another take on the same question, from an unlikely source, The Mennonite Weekly Review (hat/tip to Brian McLaren).

Lauren Sessions Stepp writes about the growing trend of young adult evangelicals leaving church which she attributes to this:

I’m not surprised. These young dropouts value the sense of community their churches provide but are tired of being told how they should live their lives. They don’t appreciate being condemned for living with a partner, straight or gay, outside of marriage or opting for abortion to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.

Cathy Grossman at USA Today, covers the story as well, profiling the apathetic or “so whats?” as she calls them. She quotes several conservative religious leaders who see the rise in religious apathy as a disaster for Christians. And other scholars see the rise in non-identification as a significant trend.

But I wonder if that’s the case. Certainly there has been a collapse in institutional religion in the last decade, but does the decline in membership actually reflect a decline in religious interest or affiliation. I wonder how many of those regular churchgoers of a previous generation had rich spiritual lives. How many of them went because of custom, or duty, or civic obligation? The difference may be attributable in part that there are no social consequences for non-attendance at religious services as there might have been fifty years ago.